Pauline Kael (on art, entertainment & games)

“Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it. There is only one rule…: Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond a new way…”

Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was a notable American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine for many years. She is the godmother of movie reviewing as an art form in itself. This bit emerged from my Twitter feed recently. My first quick attempt at verification was discouraging, as all the search engine could find, as sources for this Kael quote, were electronic gaming sites. Uh-oh. I smelled apocrypha, the quotation version of various urban and Internet legends that turn out too groovy to be true. Kael herself is famous, incidentally, in a minor way, for having said something about the 1972 election of Richard Nixon that a) she likely never said and b) has also been attributed to several other writers. I think, though, that this is a legitimate quote from Kael’s first and most famous collection of reviews, I Lost It At the Movies. Which, honesty and a little shame compel me to say, I haven’t read yet. Kael is somebody I’ve only stumbled upon, reading her reviews (or especially delicious chunks of them) by happy accident. She was idiosyncratic, opinionated, personal, and wrote wonderfully well.

As a jock who loves literature, understands some of it and marvels at good movies, music and dance, I was attracted by art as game, and by the thought that genuine creativity can be the best form of entertainment. It reminded me of a recent quote I posted by the young American writer David Roth (@david_j_roth). He defined “sport” in a similar way to Kael’s summary of what art is and does. Art really is good for us, and we should neither be afraid of it, nor allow it to be mainly used as a vehicle for selling hollow amusements and consumer status symbols.

Comments (2)

  1. Michael Freeman

    Art as game, the supreme entertainment… (!)
    The question that I hate the most as I turn the art activity over to my class is: “Mr. Freeman, can I –?” I respond by asking them a question. “Whose art is it?” Meaning, I make decisions when I do my art, you make decisions when you make your art. The hardest thing for students to do is to ignore what an art piece is supposed to look like, and to be willing to explore what an art piece can be through their decision making and individual creativity. The best thing that a student can do is to use the techniques that have been taught in an art piece that the student initiates and does without the teacher’s guidance, with just a reliance on their application of technique, and the implementation of their own individual creativity.
    Unless and until a student ventures that far, art is copying what someone else has done. There is no game. There is no creativity, really.
    But the quoted “Art as game” is so very valid for those that are willing to take a risk, and to explore their talents and their creativity. When a student does that, there is no need of classroom management — they manage themselves by being focussed. There is no need for a teacher to entertain and occupy the mind of a student that is diligently engrossed in the creative world of art. And it is the supreme entertainment. The world opens for these students, and they are focussed and occupied for hours.
    The problem is that art is just another subject to many students, by the time they get to me. Their creativity has been stunted and restricted. “The red flower with a green stem” story has settled in and all that most students can do is to weakly copy technique and only marginally focus on their task. Distressing.
    I was paid a compliment this year — by a student. He referred to me as a real art teacher. I took that to mean that he was interested in the art projects that we did this year, and that he enjoyed himself during art class. He saw art as entertainment. Mission accomplished. I guess.

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